Learning science while having fun

Written by Lauren Horn, Center for STEM Education

How do you play piano with bananas keys? How do you detect seismic activity? How do birds use their beaks to pick up food?

More than 200 young stu­dents and their fam­i­lies explored the answers to these ques­tions ear­lier this month at STEM Sunday, a sci­ence and engi­neering event held in Northeastern’s Cabot Phys­ical Edu­ca­tion Center. Vol­un­teers from the uni­ver­sity com­mu­nity ran hands-​​on activ­i­ties at the “reverse sci­ence fair,” which was orga­nized by Northeastern’s Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion, led by Claire Duggan. The event was part of the National Sci­ence Foundation’s annual Engi­neering Research and Inno­va­tion Con­fer­ence, which was hosted by the Col­lege of Engi­neering.

David Truong, who just com­pleted the fifth grade at Rus­sell Ele­men­tary School in Boston, one of Northeastern’s partner schools in Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s Step UP pro­gram, loved the event. “There were a lot of fun things there, like the robot we moved with a con­troller, and making paper towers and gliders,” he said. “There was also a wizard who talked about saving electricity.”

Truong was one of four dozen middle school stu­dents who attended the event as part of their first day of the Exxon­Mobil Bernard Harris Summer Sci­ence Camp. The free, two-​​week pro­gram — run by the Center for STEM Edu­ca­tion and named after the first African-​​American to con­duct a space­walk — gives stu­dents the chance to work along­side North­eastern fac­ulty, staff and stu­dents on projects aimed at increasing their knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence in the areas of sci­ence, tech­nology, engi­neering and mathematics.

Vol­un­teers from orga­ni­za­tions including the Cam­bridge Sci­ence Fes­tival, Maker Faire, NStar, and the Cape Cod National His­tory Museum, and grad­uate and under­grad­uate stu­dents from col­leges across the country par­tic­i­pated in the conference-​​led activities.

David Schmidt, a North­eastern bio­engi­neering grad­uate stu­dent, helped the young engineers-​​in-​​training build the tallest tower they could using only two sheets of news­paper. “Paper towers are a nice cost-​​effective activity because you can bring them into any class­room and use them for any age group,” he said. “Our tallest tower was actu­ally built by a mom, so clearly building them never gets old.”

Schmidt is also a member of Northeastern’s robotics team, the NUTRONS, which demoed a robot at the event. “These activ­i­ties are a sneaky way to teach chil­dren about engi­neering,” Schmidt said. “They don’t know they’re learning.”